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Chasing the Moon: Kodak photography mapped landing site

Jul 16, 2019

On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the United States would commit to a lunar landing by 1970 before a special joint session of Congress.

That ambitious goal set off a scramble that required an enormous effort by scientists, engineers, astronauts, and many others as the U.S. tried to respond to the Soviet Union’s early accomplishments in the so-called "space race."

Among the vital pieces of information that would be needed before Americans could land on the moon was the kind of conditions the astronauts would find on the lunar surface. That’s where the Rochester connection comes in. Eastman Kodak, long a leader in photography and related technology, was one of the major subcontractors on the project.

The complex technology that was used on the five unmanned lunar orbiters that mapped most of the moon’s surface in 1966 and 1967 had its roots in a previously classified satellite reconnaissance program called SAMOS, which began in the 1950s.

Among the former Kodak engineers who worked on the lunar orbiters are Art Cosgrove and Jeff Wynn. Both were hired by the company as young men, barely into their 20s.

Cosgrove said this was a big deal for him.

“It was exciting to me because it was just so different," Cosgrove said. "We were working 12-hour days, six days a week often, or most of the time, so it was really exciting stuff for me."

The project, and its importance to the success of the goal set by President Kennedy, also was not lost on Wynn.

“So yes, it was quite different, quite a challenge and quite a responsibility thinking that people are eventually going to land on the moon; we built these things starting in 1963,” Wynn said.

A lot of the construction and engineering on the orbiters was done at a plant on Lincoln Avenue in Rochester, where other classified work was done for decades by Kodak.

The lunar orbiters were not particularly large, or maybe even impressive to someone who isn’t aware of their history. But the technology they carried was a marvel of engineering for the time.

Wynn said the orbiters had more challenges than the kinds of satellites used to circle the Earth at that time.

“Now it’s much more complicated because instead of looking at the Earth, you now have to live in the environment of the moon, which is considerably different than looking at the Earth, being that far away for one thing; the radiation environment’s different, the entire atmosphere around the moon is different,” Wynn explained.

And the ingenuity of the engineers for Kodak and the other contractors is impressive, especially when you look at the technology that was available to them at that time.

This was before the age of video transmissions that could easily be beamed back to Earth with excellent quality. These orbiters used something called bimat transfer film, similar in a way to the process used by Polaroid instant cameras of that time. The photos taken by the orbiters were actually developed right on the satellite, and then scanned and transmitted back to Earth, where the Kodak team would convert it back to film.

All five lunar orbiters were successful, mapping nearly all of the moon and providing other information that aided scientific research.

But their most important job was helping Neil Armstrong find a safe spot to land the lunar module.

Video courtesy of NASA:

It has been more than 50 years since Cosgrove and Wynn were initially tapped to work on that lunar orbiter program for Kodak, but both men stay in touch with what’s going on.

Art Cosgrove looks back at his years with Kodak and the space program fondly.

“It was just so totally different than anything I expected to do with my life, and it was so exciting to me. I still follow what’s going on in the space programs,” Cosgrove said.

After retiring from Kodak in 2003, Wynn continued to consult for Harris Corp., now called L3 Harris Technologies, after that company acquired what had been Kodak’s Remote Sensing Systems division.

Video from Eastman Kodak about the company's involvement in the moon missions: